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Carnival Row: Amazon’s Latest Is a Mystical Misfire

Amazon’s new fantasy series is a disappointing amalgamation of familiar elements and underwhelming storytelling.

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Carnival Row, Amazon’s new foray into the supernatural, is a pastiche of elements from so many other series: at one moment, it tries to channel the Victorian gloom of Penny Dreadful, while in another, it fancies itself as an “adult” Once Upon a Time – aka, it has a penchant for fairy tits and an unusually graphic amount of bloodletting. Throw in a fully-realized world (full of real-world sociopolitical parallels) built from a wholly original concept (no, this is not an adaptation), and it might seem Carnival Row is poised to be the next great fantasy series; and yet, it is one of the most lifeless series I’ve seen in 2019, an abundantly familiar show drowned by leaden starring performances and a silly, superficial plot that more than overextends its stay during the first season’s eight-episode run.

Carnival Row is instantly forgettable, a mush of familiar concepts and ideas that never coalesce into anything truly resonant, or even mildly entertaining.

Most reviews you’ll read this week about Carnival Row will most likely lean into the very thin parallels between it and Game of Thrones: they both have elaborate mythologies, fantastical settings, and a wide array of supporting characters. But that is where the similarities end: much of Carnival Row‘s world building, as impressive as it may be in concept, just feels like world building for the sake of doing it: the many, many info dumps about a world shared by humans, faes, minotaurs, humans with ram horns, etc, etc. It’s like a highly glorified, well-budgeted fantasy cosplay convention (one that once had Guillermo del Toro attached, no less), evocative of so much familiar fiction, yet unable to tether itself to anything that feels truly original, or even worth seeing to the conclusion.

Carnival Row

This issue of weightlessness carries through every element of the series, including the lead performances from Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne, who play former lovers and soldiers-turned detective and immigrant (respectively) when brought to the “new” world of 7th century The Burgue (which looks a lot like 19th century London, including rumors of a man named Jack running around “ripping” people’s faces off).

Bloom, as one might expect, offers no nuance to the ridiculously-named role of Rycroft Philostrate, a hard-boiled detective with a pocket full of personal regrets. It’s a two-pronged issue: the writing never asks Bloom to step outside his comfort zone of “vaguely good-looking and slightly concerned,” and Bloom never tries to push the envelope, fading indistinctly into the web of forgettable minor characters – which run the gamut from bitchy rich girl trying not to go poor, to fae prostitutes, to corrupt politicians and their wives, and the games they play for power (the lead political characters are played by Chernobyl‘s Jared Harris and Game of Thrones‘ Indira Varma, which at least inject some personality into the few scenes they’re offered each episode).

Bloom’s weak performance ultimately brings down the core elements of the series: both the murder mystery and the romance suffer from his character’s unconvincing presence in the narrative. Delevingne’s at least better casted, the scrappy action heroine chops she showed in the (otherwise disappointing) Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets proving a better foundation to build her character, the (equally) ludicrously named Vignette Stonemoss.

Carnival Row

As Stonemoss, Delevingne is equal parts scrappy and raw, elements that come to life in the few moments when Carnival Row untethers Vignette from the collection of genre tropes it constructs its stories around. However, those moments are few and far in between, and most of Vignette’s big moments are built around her and Philo’s interactions, a chemistry-free romance that only furthers the underwhelming sense of facsimile running through the heart of the series.

That being said, Carnival Row isn’t completely and utterly void of redeeming qualities: it is a rather earnest attempt to build an intriguing, relevant world of fantasy, albeit one built on an convoluted foundation of overwrought cliches (and one of the more underwhelming central romances in recent memory). However, Carnival Row has no sense of pacing and tone, content to mash up half-baked ideas (for example, all the immigrant faes have Irish accents) and familiar tropes, all in favor of an underwhelming murder mystery and even more disappointing romance.

Carnival Row

Knowing Marc Guggenheim was going to be the show runner for Carnival Row initially had me excited, even after watching the boring-as-nails pilot: with so many different, strange elements to pull from, it seemed a natural playground for the EP behind Legends of Tomorrow to bring that show’s trademark unhinged chaos to: and yet, Carnival Row feels a lot closer to his Green Lantern script than The CW’s signature, groundbreaking superhero series.

Carnival Row, for all its trappings, characters, and fantasy elements, is a surprisingly simple, straightforward fare: and in the end, that’s the most disappointing part of the eight-episode first season (it’s already been renewed for a second season, of course). There’s just no risks being taken, no commitment to being truly unique or meaningful – be it the writing, the performances, or the show’s lackluster sociopolitical commentary, everything on Carnival Row is just dry. And for a show that purports the depth of its own imagination so frequently with filler backstory, it makes for a rather neutered, lifeless watch.

The most fervent fans of this particular brand of fantasy might be entertained enough to make it through all eight hours – but for most, Carnival Row is instantly forgettable, a mush of concepts and ideas that never coalesce into anything truly resonant, or even mildly entertaining.

A TV critic since the pre-Peak TV days of 2011, Randy is a critic and editor formerly of Sound on Sight, Processed Media, TVOvermind, Pop Optiq, and many, many others.

16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Bryce Carlson

    September 12, 2019 at 8:02 pm

    I read your review and while I feel you are entitled to your opinion I feel that you either did not pay attention to what you were watching or that you are not competent to handle layers of nuance that are built into the show. However, good you.

    • linda Doucett

      September 26, 2019 at 12:29 am

      I concur with the review…. boring and dull
      very disappointing

    • Kate

      November 16, 2019 at 11:55 am

      I thought it would be good as I enjoy quirky shows. This bored me to death! Watched 3 episodes… ZZZZZ. I may finish episode 4 but not looking forward to it! Dreary, dark and depressing.
      Still not sure what the plot is…..

  2. Dominique Wheeler

    September 16, 2019 at 2:23 am

    I’m sorry but were we watching the same series? You are more than entitled to you opinion but everybody who I know who’s seen it ,myself included absolutely LOVED it! It was suspenseful and beautiful! The soundtrack was amazing too! Well that’s my opinion anyway..

    • Kate

      November 16, 2019 at 12:00 pm

      I have read people either love it or hate it. As a GOT fan I was hooked from the 1st espisode….. same with TWD. May watch another episode of Carnival Row in fairness maybe I’m missing something? So far “meh”.

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The Boys Season 2 Episode 4 Review: “Nothing Like It in the World”

The Boys’ growth remains fascinating, even in the bloated, repetitive “Nothing Like It in the World.”

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The Boys Nothing Like It In the World

Considering “Nothing Like It in the World” marks The Boys‘ semi-shift into a weekly series, it is a strange decision for that episode to be a bloated, 68-minute mess mostly reinforcing the worst tendencies of prestige streaming series. It’s poorly paced, from the episode’s timeline to its goofy attempts to parallel certain events (mostly people fucking), trading in coherency for volume, a dump of character beats, plot details, and back stories that all kind of just fall of a cliff by the end of it all.

Considering “Nothing Like It in the World” marks The Boys’ semi-shift into a weekly series, it is a strange decision for that episode to be a bloated, 68-minute mess… and yet, it is a fascinating hour of TV.

And yet, it is a fascinating hour of television; there are a lot of things, large and small, The Boys is doing differently in season two. The most important of these changes is the show’s shift away from strictly parodying superhero culture for the sake of cynical laughs, into something that uses the extremes and “big-ness” (official TV term) of its subjects more as a critical lens of the dystopia we call our own reality in 2020. The reveal of Stormfront as Liberty is probably the biggest tell in all of this; though it is obvious the writer’s room was paying attention to what Watchmen was doing, it still offers a more engaging villain than the vague corporate mysticism presiding over much of season one’s dramatics.

The Boys Nothing Like It In the World

Stormfront’s presence in this episode is light, but her weight is felt across the entire spectrum of The Boys; so much so we spend a good 20-plus minutes on the road trip bringing us to the reveal that she was murdering black children in North Carolina in the 1940’s under the identity Liberty. Racists who succeed, after all, are very good at one specific thing in the modern age: branding and pandering, a tactic Stormfront’s been applying on the fringes of season two with surgical precision, undercutting Homelander’s influence along the way.

Stormfront knows how to wield the most powerful tools in modern society: social media and hysteria, understanding that the neoliberal dream of being a leader “for everyone” is a shrinking idealistic dream. The deification of The Seven, in a lot of ways, neatly parallels what we see in the media when John McCain or Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies; rather than be treated as human beings, they’re treated as beacons of some ideal, an anchor for some arbitrarily-measured sense of moral quality. That deification is the very thing The Boys parodies in its superheroes; the inability to learn the dangers of that, of course, have dire consequences, ones being felt in both “Nothing Like it in the World” and ours.

The other major unifying concept of The Boys is examining the transactional nature of emotion; for The Deep, it is literally taking auditions for his Collective-approved wife, though it takes slightly subtler forms elsewhere, mostly involving characters getting naked with each other (look, The Boys is getting better, but it still has its repetitive streak, seen in three different boring-as-all-hell sex scenes). All three of those scenes, as ineffective an unsexy as they are (seriously – did anyone watch Normal People this year? There’s such thing as good sex on TV!!!), are effective because of what follows them; a series of rejections, engaging with the core cynicism of The Boys in a more challenging, surprising way.

The Boys Nothing Like It In the World

It would’ve been so easy for The Boys to get The Ladies on board – hell, the women in the Collective are ready to get on board to be The Deep’s wife – and yet, the writers took a more complicated approach, with Becca’s rejection of Butcher, Annie’s hesitation to reconcile with Hughie, and whoever the girl Frenchie showed up to bang for a scene and whine about Kimiko refusing to engage with his victim mentality. The latter might not be very consequential (given Frenchie’s limited influence on anything this season, how could it be), but the synchronizing of these three stories across the episode is interesting, an abject refusal by The Boys to be simple – or more importantly, to constantly pander to the needs of the men in the series.

(As poorly scripted, sequenced, and performed those scenes are, it is nice to see sex on TV just be some regular ass sex that doesn’t grant one party emotional dominion over the other).

Thankfully, “Nothing Like It in the World” is a little more than its most horizontal moments; as I prefaced in the opening paragraph, there’s all too much of this episode. There are some serious Choices in this episode that boggle the mind; interspersing The Deep’s interviews through the story (yes, I get the episode is feinting being about ‘love’, but a show as cynical as The Boys can’t really do romance) makes no sense, mostly existing as curious filler moments between a collection of scenes that all run on wayyyyy longer than they need, to get the point across.

Another example: we already saw a whole season of Homelander’s weird fetish for his now-dead boss; did we really need to Elisabeth Shue-horn her character back for two interminably long scenes? While her performance remains tic-y and weird (even playing a version of herself being projected by season one’s Doppleganger), Shue’s presence only harkens back to a different era for the young series, one still lacking in confidence, fumbling to find its voice. Then, she was a bit of a dramatic anchor for the series; in this fully formed, slightly weirder and quieter second season, she sticks out like a sore thumb, a landmark for a much lesser, simplistic action superhero series.

It’s sad to say, but Homelander is infinitely more compelling when being challenged by real presences; shifting attitudes of the public, combined with Stormfront’s casual dismissal of his narcissim, are driving Homelander to a more angry, desperate place than ever before. If anything, this hour really establishes him as the season’s big ticking time bomb; with Kenji’s wild card forcefully removed from the table and Stormfront’s confident Nazi-ism well established at this point, he’s the real variable of season two.

Vought the company’s mostly faded to the background, and the various members of the Seven are treadmilling through their story lines (boy, Maeve talks a lot about a character we never see!) – or in the case of A-Train, being told to get off the treadmill altogether. Maeve and A-Train’s stories continue to be disappointing in how little screen time they’re given; as objects to isolate Homelander, they’re effective, and intriguing in that kind of “ooo, who is going to win when the heroes start fucking each other up” kind of way. But as actual characters, they really aren’t doing shit: and while so much of The Boys is working really well, seeing these side plots awkwardly stumble through the main narrative in each episode is disappointing – and a little embarrassing, considering how little it seems both writers and performers are interested in the stories (basically extensions of season one: A-Train’s failing, Maeve’s floundering… let’s move forward, people!).

After this episode, The Boys can only move forward; if there’s one benefit to this episode being a massive dump of information and over-extended exchanges, it will be reaped in future episodes that don’t have to waste time with all this table-setting. It’s supremely annoying how streaming series pace themselves in 2020, but it is a byproduct of an industry running on hope and vague viewership numbers; the Big Moments really have to pop, so might as well clear the deck for those moments with episodes like “Nothing Like It in the World,” right?

Other thoughts/observations:

  • Did I miss something, or does Black Noir’s story just drop off the face of the earth in this episode? Wasn’t he going to go after Billy – why do we have to wait for next week for that?
  • I didn’t go into detail about the reveal around Mother’s Milk’s backstory, but boy, the Watchmen parallels are strong; the idea of inherited trauma is so powerful, and informs the character’s approach to the scene in North Carolina in a really sobering, thoughtful way.
  • I appreciate a show that respects its minor characters: Anika the analyst and Doppleganger returning help continue to build out a world for The Boys, which has a bad habit of forgetting an actual world exist outside of Hughie and the “heroes.”
  • Oh yeah, Frenchie’s on a bender,
  • Speaking of: how is Hughie walking around Central Park with no disguise, or attempt to conceal his identity? Isn’t he one of the most wanted men in America right now?
  • Those donuts were Fucking enormous. really bothered me when Annie said they went to Dunkin’ for chocolate cream-filled donuts, because those most certainly DID NOT exist when I was getting donuts there as a child. See? All heroes are lying pieces of shit!
  • “You have fans; I have soldiers.” Stormfront is so well-written; so glad Aya Cash was cast in this role.
  • I really should’ve stopped writing this review after the “Shue-horn” bit, huh.
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The Boys Season 2 Episode 3 Review: “Over the Hill With the Swords of a Thousand Men”

The Boys’ marks an improvement and pays big dividends in an explosive, violently revealing hour.

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The Boys Over the Hill With the Swords of a Thousand Men

Half bottle episode and half coming out party, “Over the Hill With the Swords of a Thousand Men” is a sneaky little showcase for The Boys, and just how big its world’s suddenly gotten in season two. Though ostensibly an episode designed around two events – the boys getting stuck on the boat, and Stormfront revealing her inner racist sociopath – “Over the Hill” navigates a number of brewing conflicts in fascinating ways, building and building until the violent explosion at the episode’s conclusion. With a nimble script and a game group of performers, The Boys‘ second season is turning out to be a distinct pleasure – albeit one heading down a gruesome, dark path I sure hope it’s capable of navigating.

“Over the Hill With the Swords of a Thousand Men” navigates a number of brewing conflicts in fascinating ways, building and building until the violent explosion at the episode’s conclusion.

It does take a little while for “Over the Hill With the Swords of a Thousand Men” to get going; beginning three miles offshore with The Boys and the reunited super-siblings, the first quarter feels like it’s simply restating the stakes. It’s a nimble trick, though; led by Kimiko and Kenji, The Boys begins to feel like it is approaching a true moral quandary for the group. Which door descending into hell will they choose?

The Boys Over the Hill With the Swords of a Thousand Men

While The Boys often likes to posture its presenting characters with complex dilemmas, the show’s unnerving nihilism often upends any sort of nuance it looks for in its debates around “necessary” violence. Here, Kimiko’s presence throws a fascinating wrench into the proceedings; with most of the group’s members clinging to whatever mirage of family they have left (save for Hughie, who has… forgotten his dad exists?), even Butcher can’t deny having conflicting feelings about what to do with Kenji, and the deal that’s been offered to him if he turns him in.

Elsewhere, “Over the Hill” throws the brazen personalities of The Seven into their own little blenders, as Stormfront begins to sow discord through Vought, and abuse her powers to casually murder a lot of people – nearly all of them minorities, in a way that feels like an explosion of character, rather than an unpeeling of some complicated identity. Stormfront simply doesn’t give a fuck; and with her supernatural ability to manipulate feminist views (her speech to the reporters is magnificent, both in how it develops Stormfront’s character and nods to the simplistic ways in which the evilest people in society disguise themselves among the “good”).

While she’s kicking up tornadoes and electrocuting everyone that gets in her way, characters like The Deep and Homelander continue to benefit from the much-improved writing of season two. The show is still struggling to make Becca something more than the Ultimate Mother Protector trope, but Homelander’s warped sense of responsibility to his son is interesting, surely a bad sign for the upbringing of this world’s Superboy (will he also don a cool leather jacket and weird cyberpunk sunglasses? Who knows!). It’s clearly not going well; even he seems to recognize the danger in bringing his son’s powers to the surface, as its the first time in his life he’s facing a challenge as the world’s strongest hero (that is, until Stormfront doubles that total later in the episode, further frustrating Homelander’s attempts to hold domain over everything in his grasp).

The Boys Over the Hill With the Swords of a Thousand Men

It’s not going well for The Deep, either, as his slow descent into cult life is bringing his desperation for acceptance further to the surface. Like with Homelander’s stories, I wish The Deep’s story was a little tighter and more thoughtful (some of the body image stuff seems to be treated trivially, in a way that borders on insensitive and uninformed for the sake of easy jokes), but there’s no denying his character is infinitely more interesting this season, a test case for what a superhero trying to learn their own limits would struggle with. The Deep works best as a pathetic character, but not when it’s a pathetic character The Boys just kick around with bad punchlines; when he’s treated as a byproduct of a deeply flawed human being trying to find a path to good intentions, his fumbles and weak-minded rhetoric is much more amusing – and at times, the tiniest bit empathic (his sadness over Billy’s, well, butchering of his whale buddy was such an earnest, raw and twistedly funny moment).

The Boys has needed to accelerate its internal stakes for a while; the introduction of “super terrorists” to the world by Homelander, and Compound V’s reveal to the public might make the show’s world feel a bit smaller than intended – I think a lot about the “big” fight scenes at the end of Arrow‘s third season, where the ‘entire city’ is fighting, but there’s never more than six people around – The Boys does that on a narrative level sometimes. But as the stories of the show dig a little deeper into its characters – Maeve’s disillusionment, Homelander’s failure to emulate paternal behavior, A-Train’s desperation, it’s beginning to feel like the writers have a deeper understanding of its characters and world, and how to wield its inherent sadistic cynicism to more interesting ends. “Over the Hill With the Swords of a Thousand Men” benefits massively from that, setting up a number of intriguing dominoes for the back half of season two to knock over (in bloody fashion).

Other thoughts/observations:

  • Look, I’m bummed how the Kenji character played out; he was such an interesting character, an examination of everything horrible about what power and war can do to a human being. It’s sad to see The Boys dispose of such an intriguing presence, especially as its a death of a minority character in service of mostly white-related stories – however, with such a hateful, nasty character like Stormfront waiting in the wings, it is easy to see how the writers found their way down that path. (like, she could’ve killed Black Noir and this show would’ve literally lost nothing… just sayin’).
  • Can A-Train just collapse or whatever, so we can get this storyline moving? We’ve been doing this since the second episode!
  • Why haven’t we seen any reaction to Becca seeing Butcher in person at the end of season one? She hasn’t mentioned it or even had a longing look off-screen to violin music.
  • Man, I’m so glad they cast Aya Cash as Stormfront.
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The Best Golden Girl is Sophia Petrillo

Sophia Petrillo was a legend in her own mind who always had her way and like Mighty Mouse, always won.

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Sophia Petrillo The Golden Girls

A seemingly harmless little old lady with curly white hair, oversized glasses, and an innate ability to tell a great story shows up on her daughter’s doorstep when the retirement home she was put in by said daughter burns down. With a simple, “Hi there,” the world meets Sophia Petrillo. For seven years on NBC’s The Golden Girlsa show about the senior set—Sophia lived with her intelligent and extremely sarcastic divorced daughter Dorothy Zbornak and her two roommates, sexy, eternally horny southern belle Blanche Devereaux and sweet but dim-witted Minnesotan Rose Nylund. Each is memorable in their own way, but it’s Sophia, “feisty, zesty, and full of old-world charm,” that stands out the most.

When TV was full of generic, sweet grandma types, Sophia was anything but. Sure, she looked the part with her bifocals, pearls, and now iconic straw and bamboo-beaded handbag, but Sophia was always trying to make a quick buck. She conned Rose into going into a sandwich-making business that pit them against the mob, faked being paralyzed to try and collect insurance, and constantly “borrowed” money from Dorothy’s purse. Instead of helping Dorothy, Blanche and Rose get out of jail when they are mistaken for hookers (don’t ask, just Youtube it). She stole their tickets to go to a party and meet Burt Reynolds. She also stole Rose’s car, worked at a fast-food restaurant, and won a marathon. Not bad for a woman in her eighties. Sophia had a sharp wit and an acerbic tongue, blaming her stroke for leaving her without the ability to self-censor. She was always ready with a zinger or a comeback, some of which she saved for her very own daughter.

Sophia Petrillo The Golden Girls

Sophia Petrillo is the Secret Star of The Golden Girls

That’s not to say she’s all schemes and insults. Beneath her tough exterior is a kind woman with a big heart who loves her family and friends. Viewers don’t often get to see her softer side, which makes the moments they do seem that much more special. One of the best Sophia episodes showed her reaction to the death of her son, Phil. She put up a wall of anger which Rose was finally able to break down in the final moments of the episode, revealing Sophia’s true feelings of guilt over Phil’s cross-dressing as she bursts into tears. Another favourite was when Dorothy expressed concern about her mother not doing enough with her days. We then get to see exactly what she gets up to sticking up for her friend and causing a scene at the grocery store while claiming to represent a fictional senior citizens union, volunteering at a sick kids hospital and later, conducting a senior citizens jazz band. Meanwhile, Dorothy, Rose, and Blanche do next to nothing except sit around and eat. When she’s asked what she did all day upon her return, she simply says she bought a nectarine, and Dorothy, Rose, and Blanche are none the wiser.

But if Sophia has one claim to fame, it is her colorful old-world tales about Sicily, which often as not, contain a pearl of wisdom or embellishment of some kind. We would have loved to have known her during her “picatta period (a wedge of lemon and a smart answer for everything),” when she was the most beautiful girl at a resort and all the men fought over her (so beautiful, in fact, that she had “a butt you could bounce a quarter off of”). She was also once painted by Picasso and was best friends with Mama Celeste. But I digress. Sophia Petrillo was a legend in her own mind who always had her way and like Mighty Mouse, always won. Her hunches were never wrong, and rarely, if ever did she meet her match. Sophia was, in short, a one-woman show. And thanks to re-runs and fan appreciation, that show will never be gone.

  • Dasilva

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight.

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